Colonel Joseph Fisher’s Brigade on the Round Tops

Tom Elmore

Sergeant Major
Jan 16, 2015
Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford’s two brigades of Pennsylvania Reserves arrived from the east on the Wheatfield road, skirting the north slope of Little Round Top, about 6:30 p.m. on July 2, when Caldwell’s division of the Second Corps was advancing into action in the Wheatfield. In the lead was Col. Joseph Washington Fisher’s brigade of five regiments, the 12th, 5th, 10th, 9th and 11th Pennsylvania Reserves - probably in that order. Bringing up the rear was Col. William McCandless’ four regiments.

Fisher’s men immediately began filing into a column of regiments on the right of the road facing west, but before this formation was completed, orders came to deploy on the opposite (south) side of the road, which was likely accomplished by a simultaneous left flank movement of the five regiments. McCandless’ brigade in the rear conformed to these orders as well. The sounds of fighting were likely receding somewhat as the Confederates were pushed back south and west of the Wheatfield by Caldwell’s brigades. Maj. Gen. George Sykes, commanding the Fifth Corps, took the opportunity to dispatch one of Crawford’s brigades to bolster Vincent’s brigade (now commanded by Col. Rice), posted on the south slope of Little Round Top. Fisher’s brigade was chosen. It was nearly 7 p.m., and the tactical situation was about to change dramatically.

Accounts differ on how Fisher moved his regiments, but I favor the version that has the 12th moving to the right and rear, behind the brigade, which was still in a column of regiments. Each regiment successively uncovered the front of the regiment behind it. This placed each regiment’s "right in front" on their march along the eastern slope of Little Round Top, meaning that once they faced to the front, they would be facing east, away from the enemy.

When it came time for the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, the regiment in the rear, to move out, the volume of fire toward the front was rising substantially, and Crawford decided that it should stay put. In 1878, Fisher recalled that the decision to hold the 11th in place “was owing to one of Crawford’s blunders of which he was prolific.” Actually it was held up because at that moment (about 7:03 p.m.), Brig. Gen. Wofford’s brigade of Georgians reached the west edge of the Wheatfield and proceeded to flank and crush Sweitzer’s brigade and the U.S. Regulars. The 11th was permanently attached to McCandless after the battle.

Thus Fisher missed taking the prominent role in the famous charge of the Pennsylvania Reserves a few minutes later, the honor and acclaim going instead to McCandless’s brigade. Fisher’s men, meanwhile, arrived on the left and rear of Col. Rice’s brigade, which was held by Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, but the heavy fighting in that vicinity was already done, and the woods grew dim in the fading twilight. Only light skirmish fire was emanating from the direction of Big Round Top, where the Confederates had sought refuge.

In his official report, Fisher takes credit for recognizing the importance of seizing Big Round Top as darkness descended on July 2. He states that he took two regiments (5th and 12th), and with the 20th Maine, ascended the hill. He wrote that his two regiments proceeded steadily up the hill (no mention of the 20th Maine), and concluded his account with the pompous declaration that “taking it all in all, I have no hesitation in saying that my brigade fulfilled their mission to Gettysburg.” Crawford, his boss, having thrown back the Confederates from in front of Little Round Top, then rode over to Fisher’s position, and claimed in his official report that it was his idea to take Big Round Top, and so directed Fisher to accomplish the task.

In 1878, Fisher recalled that he called Col. Rice’s attention to Big Round Top and resolved to capture it. He writes that Rice “proposed joining me in the undertaking,” and detailed the 20th Maine for that purpose. Here Fisher mentions that the 20th Maine was sent ahead because it was armed with Springfield muskets, while his men had inferior “buck and ball” smoothbores. (However, one might conclude that a round ball with three buckshot might be more effective at close range on the boulder strewn slope of Big Round Top.)

Left unsaid was the fact that Fisher’s brigade was intact and comparatively fresh, while Chamberlain’s regiment was battered and bruised from their recent epic battle with the 15th Alabama. The Maine men had earned the right to a good night’s rest at the very least, and now they were being called upon to feel their way up a steep and very rocky slope in the dark, while confronting a foe of undetermined strength and location. Chamberlain, whose mood no doubt reflected that of his men, had every right to be livid, but he performed his duty without complaint. However, two decades later, the memory was apparently still fresh, judging from his candid comments (marked private) to Bachelder in early 1884 (Bachelder Papers, 2:992):

“My dear Colonel: I had no communication with Col. Fisher at all at Gettysburg. His regiments did not ‘occupy’ [Big] Round Top until I had been there at least three hours. Crawford’s report is false in every particular. It was Genl. Sykes who told Col. Rice to occupy [Big] Round Top. … It was quite dusk with Fisher came up and reported to Col. Rice for orders. … When Sykes’ order came, I heard Rice ask Fisher to make the movement to seize the crest (or western slope) of [Round Top]. He [Fisher] emphatically declined and I remember his saying that his men were armed with inefficient rifle 'smooth-bores' it seems to me he said, and especially that the ground was difficult and unknown to his men. He and his men also were much agitated. Rice turned to me and said, ‘Colonel, will you do it?,’ meaning as much I thought to rebuke Fisher who with a fresh brigade refused to undertake it, as he did to ask me to do it. After I had fairly taken the crest of [Round Top], with several prisoners and with more loss to my own command and had formed a strong line in order to be secure against attack, one of Fisher’s regiments, commanded by Col. Dare [commanding the 5th] came up moving by the flank … Dare was trying to find me he said, as he was ordered to come to my support. I asked him to form on my right, but as he was ‘right in front’ his attempt to ‘front’ faced him to the rear and while I was trying to make them face about, the enemy, hearing the confusion, opened fire, and his regiment started like antelopes and went down the way they had come up on … I then sent for the 83rd Penna. of our own brigade, which came up promptly … Sometime during the night some of Fisher’s regiments [5th and 12th] came around by the left somewhere and formed near the [summit], doing no good and no hurt as the enemy were not threatening from that position but on our right. … I had nothing to do with Fisher, nor he with me.”

The 5th and 12th Pennsylvania Reserves clearly deployed up Big Round Top facing the wrong way, although Col. Fisher had more than two hours to get them into the proper alignment. Nor was Fisher ready when the 20th Maine moved out, so that the 5th and 12th lost sight of comrades whose job was to screen their forward movement, and promptly became lost somewhere lower down on the north (or even northwest) slope of Big Round Top. Fisher himself was conspicuously absent. Although the truth may lie between the two disparate accounts, I tend to believe it was much closer to Chamberlain’s version, knowing as we do the man and his accomplishments. Likewise, something of Fisher’s character is revealed as well. The other lesson here is to avoid accepting official reports at face value. Fisher’s four regiments on Big Round Top lost an average of only about one percent of their strength during the battle, and most of this loss probably occurred from skirmishing on July 3. In contrast, the 20th Maine lost nearly a third of their men.

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James N.

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Feb 23, 2013
East Texas
I believe Pfanz in his Gettysburg - The Second Day agrees with Chamberlain's account.

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